Prelude March 10, 1953 "So which magazine are you from?" Stephen Brabason asked. Not, John Russell thought, that the actor really cared. He just wanted to emphasise how many other interviewers were paying court to him that day. "I work for a couple of newspapers," Russell told him. "One in England, one in Germany." "Oh," the actor said, sounding almost interested. "Do you speak German?" "I do. I lived there for a time. Immediately after the war," he added, because letting on that he'd also been there for most of the inter-war years rarely elicited a positive response. "And I know you have a lot of fans in that country," he said ingratiatingly. Brabason let slip the smile which had launched quite a clutch of B movies, and, of late, a smattering of As. Russell was at a loss as to how or why. Having watched the latest, a sub-Hitchcock murder mystery in which Brabason played the second male lead and heroine's saviour, Russell knew the man was only capable of playing one character, albeit in a stunning variety of costumes. And having now met the man, it was the clear that the character in question was Brabason's idealised version of himself. The actor was finishing work on a romantic weepie called Her Decision , which centred on a couple taking in the heroine's dead sister's children after she and her husband have both been struck by the same bolt of lightning. Russell, invited to a prerelease screening, had followed Effi's advice and kept an eye out for the decision in the title, and been suitably impressed by the accuracy of her prediction that he would wait in vain. "So what drew you to Her Decision ?" he asked Brabason. Apart from the money and the fact that his agent had urged him to do so. The actor thought about his reply, which said something for his professionalism, if not the film. "Was it the chance to work with Meredith Kissing?" Russell asked. Any on-screen chemistry between the two was notable by its absence, but that, according to Russell's actress wife, Effi, was because both leads were more interested in partners of their own gender. A common enough Hollywood occurrence, but not one that received much of an airing in the press. "Well, she's an absolute sweetheart, of course. And we do work well together." "Would you say the story is about redemption?" Russell asked. "Risible redemption" had been Effi's verdict when he outlined the film's plot to her. "Well, yes, I can see that," Brabason agreed, reaching for his cigarettes and offering the packet. Russell declined. "Your character feels partly responsible," he suggested helpfully. "For his nephew's death, yes. And it forces him to go the extra mile." The actor offered up his smile again, this time through a suggestive cloud of smoke. Russell remembered Effi and their adoptive daughter, Rosa, imagining the conversation in the writers' room as they came up with the ludicrous denouement, and stifled a laugh. Get a grip, he told himself, not for the first time in his short career as a Hollywood reporter. "What was your own childhood like?" he asked. The actor had a two-drag think. "Fine," he said tentatively. "Normal," he added with rather more enthusiasm. "We weren't poor, but we certainly weren't rich. Just average Joes in an average town. To answer your earlier question, I think that's why I'm drawn to characters like Martin in Her Decision . They're the backbone of America." Russell wondered how many average American Joes became the pirates, trapeze artists, and brain surgeons Brabason had played, but saw no point in asking. How could he get anything that his readers might find interesting out of this man? "How did you get to Hollywood?" he asked, for want of anything better. "By bus," Brabason said, with what actually looked like a genuine smile. He tapped ash into the ashtray. "I'd done some acting in high school, and the drama teacher knew someone who knew someone out here and I was invited to come for a screen test. So I sat on a Greyhound for two days, and when I got here I passed the audition." The man was good-looking, Russell conceded, though less so in the flesh than on screen. And older. "The parts were small to start with, but they got bigger and bigger. And I like to think I improved as an actor." "And do you think your films have got better?" Russell asked, knowing it was a loaded question. The man hadn't yet made one that anyone would remember. His entire output ranged between poor and mediocre. "In what way?" Brabason asked. "Well, the better an actor gets, the more he needs the scope that complex characters and psychological themes provide." "More complex than Her Decision , you mean," the actor said, surprising Russell. "We can't all be Laurence Olivier. Or, God help us, Marlon Brando. And lots of people like simple stories with straightforward characters who just get on with the job." "They do," Russell agreed. "So can I ask you about some of your other films and characters?" He did so, and the actor's answers and anecdotes, though rarely enlightening, were soon copious enough to fill out a thousand-word piece. "And the future?" Russell asked in conclusion. "Any new projects your fans would like to hear about?" There was one, a war movie about a bunch of GIs island-hopping their way across the Pacific. It was an ensemble piece, according to Brabason, and less gung ho than the usual fare. "It's actually a damn good script," the actor said, as if he couldn't quite believe it. Russell thanked him for his time, and made his way out through the Culver Studios complex. "Nice, isn't he?" the blonde receptionist said as he handed in his pass. Walking across the car lot, Russell had to admit that Brabason had been hard to dislike. If his physical and mental attributes were hardly exceptional, his luck certainly had been, and who could blame him for that? Effi might not agree, but making bad movies wasn't a crime. The sun was still losing out to the clouds, the temperature noticeably higher than it had been an hour ago, but still cool by LA standards. For Russell, who'd lived all but the last three years of his life in more temperate climates, it felt extremely comfortable. Rain was expected later that day but would probably be over before he had time to raise his convertible's roof. He let himself into the blue Frazer and worked his way out of the lot and onto Washington Boulevard, thinking ahead to lunch. His favourite diner was out on the coastal highway, a drive that would have felt long in Berlin but here seemed almost inconsequential. A walk on the beach before he ate would make the food taste even better. He drove west on Washington, then north through Venice and Santa Monica and onto the road that followed the coast. The beaches to his left were sparsely populated, and it was hard to pick out a horizon between the dull grey sea and sky. He passed the Casa del Mar Hotel, outside which some hopeful starlet in a shiny dress was having her picture taken by a posse of cameramen, and was soon on the open highway, joining a two-way procession of huge gleaming trucks spewing out dark exhaust. The traffic thinned out a little after the intersection with Sunset, and a few minutes later he was pulling into the diner's lot. The smell of bacon almost sucked him in, but three years in Los Angeles had taught him that lengthy walks were the only way for his body to survive a way of life built around motoring. He crossed the highway and walked down through an area of shaded picnic tables to the sandy beach. The tide was neither in nor out; the only people in sight were around two hundred yards away, walking eastward with a couple of dogs. Russell started off in the other direction. Even under such a dull sky, it felt like a beautiful spot: on one side the ocean stretching into the distance, on the other the wooded mountains rising behind the highway and its narrow strip of houses and small businesses. As he walked, he went back over the interview. It would make for an adequate article, but nothing more--he would never win acclaim as a film critic. During his life in Germany he had always liked the cinema, but--as he now realised--the films on offer in Berlin had covered a much broader spectrum than those on show in LA. He had grown up with everything from art films to escapist trash and had learned that any genre could be handled badly or well. Here in Hollywood the palette seemed much more restricted, much more focused on appealing to the lowest common denominator. And according to Effi, things were getting worse rather than better: actresses who'd flourished with noir were being returned to their prewar boxes; more and more writers were relying on self-censorship to avoid falling foul of the dreaded McCarthy. And then there was the context. Russell and his son, Paul, had often enjoyed a Western in prewar Berlin, but watching them here in LA it was harder to get past the role they seemed to play in American life, reinforcing myths and outright lies about the country's history. When Effi and he had decided three years earlier that she should accept a film offer from a Hollywood studio, they and their adopted daughter had come out to LA for what they assumed was only a few weeks' well-paid work for his wife and an extended vacation for himself and Rosa. But one film had led to another, and a school was found for a reluctant Rosa, which brought on her English in leaps and bounds. Not wanting to sit around all day admiring the newly refurbished Hollywood sign, and thinking it might be fun to interview Hollywood stars and attend lavish receptions, Russell had asked Solly Bernstein--his long-term agent in London, and the man for whom his son and daughter-in-law now worked--to find him work as a Hollywood/California correspondent. Solly had duly obliged, fixing Russell up with the two papers he'd mentioned to Brabason. It had been fun for a while, but after six months or so the vacuousness at the heart of it all had begun to wear on him. After more than thirty years of wars, revolutions, and other horrors, he found it impossible to take Hollywood seriously. A job was a job, but he wasn't learning anything useful, and that, he realised, was important to him. It wasn't as if they needed the paltry money he was making--Effi was earning more than enough for all of them, and then some. Early in 1952 she had stepped into the part of the housekeeper in Please, Dad , a popular radio show about a widower and his two children and had quickly become an audience favourite. There were already rumours that the show was destined for television in the season starting that fall, and Effi, unlike the current children and neighbours, looked the right age for the part. By the end of that year the TV version had been running for three months, and she was fast becoming a household name among the increasing number of US citizens who owned a TV set. Rosa meanwhile had grown more accustomed to American life and discovered more than a few things she liked about it: the sunshine, the food, the sea, new friends. If she was missing Europe she was hiding it well. And all of them, Russell knew, felt safer here. Five years had passed since his showdown with Stalin's enforcer Lavrenti Beria, but it still felt like dangerously unfinished business. Barring a life on the moon, he, Effi, and Rosa were about as far away from Moscow and Beria as they could get, and that was how he liked it. He should count his blessings, Russell thought, because there were certainly plenty of them. Probably more than he deserved. A particularly noisy truck rumbled past, making him realise how accustomed he'd grown to the steady stream of traffic a hundred yards to his right. Above it, skimming the mountain slope, two large birds were soaring and swooping in search of prey. To his left, a couple of small white boats were sailing close to shore, and out beyond them what looked like a sizable freighter was heading out into the Pacific. Way up ahead, someone was walking towards him. Behind him there were only empty sands. Someone on one of the white boats was shouting something to someone in the other, barely audible above the wash of the incoming tide. The trucks were still lumbering by. He was surrounded by people, but only as extras, as part of the scenery. Out of reach. "In a lonely place," Russell murmured to himself. A film he and Effi had seen and loved during their first few months in LA. Bogie at his best. And the wonderful Gloria Grahame. The approaching walker was now about three hundred yards away. A man, it looked like, and one wearing a longish coat. A raincoat perhaps--they were not uncommon. It seemed too bulky for that, though, and overcoats really were unusual, even in LA's so-called winter. There was something about the figure that made Russell think of Russia. He resisted the sudden urge to turn and run. He'd been thinking about Beria, and here he was imagining that this might be the Soviet leader's agent, when there was no reason on earth why his enemy should have decided, after five long years, that killing his blackmailer had become a safe thing to do. Almost in spite of himself, Russell was still walking, and the gap between him and the now-obvious overcoat had reduced to fifty yards. He could make out the man's face under his hat; the Latin colouring and thin lips brought Jacques Mornard to mind, but Trotsky's assassin was still in a Mexican prison. Or was he? Twenty yards. The man had both hands in his overcoat pockets, and there was a faint smile on his face, a sheen of moisture above the upper lip. He wasn't Hispanic, Russell realised, as the right hand emerged from its pocket with something shiny, and his own stomach dropped through the floor. The "something shiny" was a long-stemmed pipe. "Good morning," the stranger said cheerily with an English accent. "Good morning," Russell echoed, feeling the cold sweat on his back. The man was already past him. Turning his head, Russell saw the pipe slipped back into its pocket. Had his imaginary Soviet agent been as anxious as he had? Had pulling the pipe out been a nervous reaction? And only a Brit would wear a thick overcoat on a day like this. Once his non-assassin was a decent distance away, Russell turned back in his wake towards the diner. He felt decidedly shaky, and more than a little foolish, but was inclined to forgive himself. This particular apparition had not been sent to kill him, but the enemy was real and certainly had no shortage of agents, as Russell knew only too well. Excerpted from Union Station by David Downing All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.